It's been 42 years since Ben Vereen conquered Broadway -- and won a Tony Award -- for his role as leading player in the original production of "Pippin," but the veteran performer still has plenty of magic to do.
For starters, on March 31, he pops up in the series finale of "How I Met Your Mother." Then, he'll head to Tilles Center April 4, where he'll sing, dance and share show-biz stories in his one-man show, "Steppin' Out With Vereen." He also just wrapped the big-screen comedy "Finally Famous," in which he plays actor-director Chris Rock's dad. For many people, though, Vereen will probably be best remembered for his Emmy-nominated turn as "Chicken" George Moore in ABC's groundbreaking 1977 miniseries, "Roots."
Vereen, 67, who also is an ordained minister, recently spoke with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo about the tragedies and triumphs that have defined his life and career.
You've spent a lot of time on Long Island lately. Your show is coming up, and this fall you taught your master class in acting at Suffolk County Community College. What was that experience like?
It was wonderful. They were doing "Hair." I didn't get the chance to see it, so I hope it was wonderful, but the students were very receptive, and I look forward to going back and continuing to work with them. . . . My mission is to make them aware of what it takes to make it in the business and to give them tools they need and to use them when they get on the stage. Anything you do -- acting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument -- I teach them how to unlock their inner greatness.
Your start was as Sammy Davis Jr.'s understudy in the London production of "Golden Boy." Did you ever go on?
Not for him, but for Eddie Satin, which was the Billy Daniels role . I was in the chorus, so it not only allowed me the chance to perform but to also watch everybody. Back in those days, I learned everybody's roles; it's something I do, because you never know when you might be called.
"Roots" was such a pivotal moment in your career. At the time, did you realize how important that show would be?
I knew I wanted to be a part of it because in those days there wasn't really much on the AfricanAmerican experience. . . . We only had stories, word-of-mouth. Alex Haley took the word-of-mouth, put it to paper, and ABC was brave enough to put it on film. So, for us, it was important to have some documentation to say this holocaust happened to African-American people.
You've been candid about your drug addiction and the accident in which you were seriously injured when a car hit you. Do you ever think, "I can't believe I'm still here?"
Every day is a blessing when you've come through a storm and you're on the other side of it. Mahalia Jackson used to sing a song called "How I Got Over." My soul looks back and wonders how I got over. . . . And now, I'm a neon sign for that which has carried me through.
You also seem to be a firm believer in giving back, since you've done a lot of speaking to addicts.
You can't give what you haven't got. And because I've had those experiences, I like to pass them on. It's sad when I look back on the things that I had to go through, but there was a reason for it, and that was to give back to guide others on the path of their greater self. For that, I am grateful to talk to young people, to counsel people and to help them through the adversities they are going through in their life.
How did you become an ordained minister?
I was ordained by my ex-father-in-law, who's a bishop of the St. Mark Holy Church in Brooklyn. He told me, "If you want to go out there preaching, you might as well have a license." Laughs.] . . . I'm nondenomin-ational. I believe there are many trails on top of the mountain, but there's only one mountaintop.
So, can you perform marriage ceremonies?
I've married quite a few people. . . . And mine last. I always say to them, "If I'm going to put you two together, you're going to last. And if not, I'll come and get you."